the first forty eight

>> 2.28.2009

One of my and Mrs. Ty's guiltiest pleasures is watching late-night crime reality shows, like Forensics Files.  One of the many such shows beamed into my home from low orbit is called "The First 48", and its premise is that a homicide detective's chances of solving a case are cut in half if he or she can't pull it together in the first 48 hours.  The show then breathlessly follows a team of law enforcement agents from the time a homicide is reported, all the way through the first 48 hours of the investigation.  I have no idea if the quoted statistic is true or not, but as I sit at the computer tonight, just minutes before the first 48 hours of free agency draw to a close, I can't help but note the parallels.

In the days leading up to free agency, there's a wierd period of a few days where agents and players and teams are all doing an intricate dance, feeling each other out, hush-hush, while publicly saying nothing.  Why?  Because, of course, the league forbids any such contact until the clock strikes midnight at the end of the league year, and the free-agents-to-be become actual free agents.  Usually, there are rumblings about who might be headed where, but this year the 'tampering' escalated to unignorable levels.  This year's biggest fish, Albert Haynesworth--a man who many Lions fans were hoping would take less to rejoin The Grandmaster up here--was reported to be off the market three days before there was even supposed to be a market.

Many Lions fans and observers were irrationally hoping that the Lions would be making a big splash in the early hours, depsite repeated quotes from the men in charge that that wouldn't be happening.  Don't ask me why the Lions blogologue exploded with hate when there were no new signings as of noon on Friday; this was all foretold well in advance.  I honestly wonder who, besides Haynesworth, people were expecting the Lions to break the bank for?  However, soon there were rumblings of a coming meeting with WR Nate Washington and RB Derrick Ward, and--yes!--OG Derrick Dockery.  Then came the first slap in the face: News surfaced that Mayhew had brokered a deal with Carolina for CB Ken Lucas--but Lucas immediately nixed it, saying he wouldn't report if he was traded to the Lions.  As I said at the time, those of you out there rooting for 0-16, well, the weed of crime bears bitter fruit, you old hag.

I was both thrilled to hear this--the Lions are moving swiftly to address what I percieve to be the most glaring need, with a player I've long admired!--and crestfallen: they couldn't do it because dude would rather not play than play here.  It was right then that I realized how far uphill Martin Mayhew had to go.  Still, he filled one need (#2 RB/third down back) with the signing of Maurice Morris, and with Derrick Dockery and Nate Washington in town, I thought we had a great chance of plugging all our biggest holes on offense--save QB--without breaking the bank or giving up anything in a trade.  As I left work, I was bouyed by the notion that Mayhew saw all the holes, that he was filling the ones he could responsibly fill responsibly, and appeared to be patching up the offense and preparing to raze the defense and rebuild it from scratch.

Imagine my suprise when I turned on my radio and heard Brian VanOchten, of the Grand Rapids Press, on Bill Simonson's "Huge" show, spewing ignorant, exasperated tripe about how the lack of a splashy signing meant it was the "same old Lions".  Odd, but I seem to remember Matt Millen making a while lot of splashy free agent signings that amounted to precisely jack and squat over eight long, painful years of failure.  No, I think Mayhew's initial approach--the exact one he said he'd take from the get-go--was the right one.

Oh, but just because he didn't make a splashy free-agent sign, didn't mean he wasn't about to make waves.  News broke that the Dockery "free agent visit" was actually part of an accidentally unconsummated trade (gee, thanks Buffalo!), resulting in Dockery returning to the team that drafted him, the Redskins--who, somehow, still had some money left?  Undeterred, Mayhew managed to work a stunner of a deal in his third attempt.  He dealt Jon Kitna to the Cowboys for--at least--CB Anthony Henry, a legit veteran starting cornerback.  Admittedly, he's coming off a down year, but he's still an enormous upgrade over Travis Fisher as a #1 CB.  Mayhew also filled some depth with WR Bryant Johnson, who would make an okay inurance policy if neither Nate Washington nor T.J. Houshmandzadeh will sign here--and an awesome #3 if one of them does sign.  He also addressed CB depth and the lack of specialized special teamers by signing ex-Titan CB Eric King.

Finally, we come to the real whiz-bang deal of the evening: hot on the heels of the reports of Matt Cassel being traded to the Chiefs, several sources reported that the Lions had dangled a "flip this house" scenario to the Broncos: We'll get you Matt Cassell if you'll give us Jay Cutler.  First of all, the fact that this even reached the dicussion stage should put to rest any visions some had of a diaper-clad Martin Mayhew, sitting in a high chair at the Big Boy table, crying for his mama because widdle ole him don't know what ta do.  Second of all, trading for Cassell--to flip him for Jay Cutler?!?  Not only would our quarterback picture have gone from one of the gloomiest to one of the brightest (Cutler the starter, Culpepper the veteran backup, Stanton the project), the proposed chain of trades would have been plain crazy, as would have been the press coverage and fan reaction.  Crazier still is this: the fact that the deal was even discussed at all infurated Cutler--to the point where he is referring to his Broncos career in the past tense to the Denver media.  The latest as the "first 48" come to a close?  That the deal may not be dead, and the Lions may still be in the hunt.

What's the verdict?  In the matter of Lions Fans versus Martin Mayhew, on one count of being a real NFL GM, me the jury finds the defendant guilty.  Mystery solved.

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The Lions Congregation

>> 2.27.2009

Everyone--

I was remiss in not mentioning it yesterday; the good Reverend Spielman over at The Church Of Schwartz has assembled some of the best and brightest of the Lions blogosphere (also, me) to convene as part of a weekly roundtable dicussion called the "The Lions Congregation".  It's a healthy mix of fan bloggers and journalist bloggers, with, of course, input from The Rev himself and his compatriot, Deacon Blades Boyd.  I figured there would be a lot of consensus, but it's really interesting to read all the different opinions.  I encourage you all to give the first edition a read.

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old mother hubbard: the fullbacks

>> 2.26.2009

Unfortunately, I may not be able to get all these bad boys done in time for tonight's midnight madness.  Still, we press on . . .

Jerome Felton:  The Lions second fifth-round pick in 2008, the 6'-0", 246# rookie definitely made an impression.  Big, thick, and yet agile enough to be a legitimate rushing and recieving threat, Felton seemed to be a solid addition.  He didn't blow people up in the blocking game quite like a man of his size ought to, and he was slowed for a few weeks by an ankle injury.  However, the man absolutely wrecked people at Tulane, and I think he could develop into an effective offensive weapon.  Much like TE Michael Gaines, he could get used as Linehan used H-back Jim Kliensasser did when Linehan was in Minnesota.  However, I don't think he'll develop into the facemask-breaking replacement for Cory Schlesinger that fans want to see.  Bottom line:  a big young man with plenty of athleticism for his size, Felton could see significant time in 2009.

Jon Bradley:  A fan favorite, Bradley is a converted defensive tackle (!).  Listed at 6'-1", 310#, Bradley is a huge load coming through the line.  However, he's not just a big body--Bradley was an RB/LB in high school, and is sitting at third all-time in Arkansas high school history with 6,493 rushing yards and fourth all-time with 85 rushing TDs.  That . . . is impressive.  Bradley was converted from DT to fullback in the middle of the 2007 preseason, and served pretty admirably for the rest of the year, considering he knew practically nothing of the offense or position until then.  Hopes were high for 2008, but a shoulder injury in the last game of the preseason was going to sideline him for at least several weeks.  The Lions pulled out their old "let's stash this guy" card and IR'd Bradley.  If he is 100%, he should push Jerome Felton for playing time--and in fact, they might become the 'blocking FB' and 'recieving FB'.  However, if he doesn't shine in camp, he might not make the team.  Bottom line: a fan favorite who's a lot more 'theoretical potential' than 'actual reality'.  Missing all of 2008 means the jury is definitely still out.

Moran Norris: a journeyman free agent signed when Felton got injured, the 6'-1, 250# free agent has one of the best names ever.  If you ever frequent the message boards at thehuddle.com, you know why.  Norris proved to be a capable veteran blocker, but he didn't flash much that makes me think he'll be around at the end of training camp.  Bottom line: just a guy with a great name.

SUMMARY:  Between Felton and Bradley, the Lions should be okay at this position going into 2009.  Both of them have potential to be above-average NFL fullbacks in one capacity or another, but it remains to be seen how close to their potential they'll get.  I don't see a burning need here, but if a prospect they love falls into their laps late on the second day, I could see it.

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why did the 400-pound chicken come home to roost? to get whatever he wants!

>> 2.25.2009

It puts me in a difficult spot, as a fan.  When a player like Shaun Rogers--an impossible beast who can outrun, outjump, and generally out-athlete men half his size--gets drafted by the Lions and sees immediate success, it's hard not to love him.  When you see this big doofy mug (thanks, Sports Illustrated):

How can you not love him?  When it looks like he's on his way to being one of the best players in the game at his position--maybe even on his side of the field--how can you not love him?  How can you not want to drive to Ford Field, buy a Big Baby jersey and an eight dollar beer, and holler like a Texas country boy every time he blows somebody up?

Here's the problem.

As NFL.com's Adam Schefter points out, that big fat lovable tub of badass carries a lot of baggage--and I am neither referring to Samsonite, nor the keg of flesh behind his doubtlessly-melon-sized belly button.  Rogers plays hard when he is happy, or feels he has something to prove, and that's it.  If he's not happy, doesn't feel like he's under the gun, or just plain doesn't wanna be sweet that day, he goes from being a badass to a lardass, effective purely for his size and nothing else.

We as Lions fans saw plenty of both the unblockable monster, and the wind-sucking goldbricker.  Many have correctly noted that the loss of Rogers put a dagger in the heart of a nearly-moribund defense, and the one INT we got out of Leigh Bodden in the one year he was here, can't possibly make up for the every-down impact Rogers had.  I concede that removing Big Baby from the middle of the defense created a cavernous hole, and our run defense was horrifyingly bad without him.  

However, it was only 'pretty bad' with him--and there were critical times (like the Philly game of 2007) where he was technically present on the field, but got blown off the ball by 100-pounds-lesser men.  Moreover, his play on the field is only part of the picture.  He clearly buys his own hype, and wants to be treated at all times like the lead dog--regardless of recent production or attitude.  Everything I heard while he was here was that the was a literal and physical enormous presence in the locker room, and he more or less ruled it with an iron fist.  He, like most other talented players stuck on the Millen-era Lions, grew completely sick of it all and turned the coaches out.  His influence became entirely negative; his off-field antics grew increasingly unpalatable.  Finally, his on-field play absolutely melted into nothing; he could be counted on nothing more than 20 snaps of 'meh', occasionally punctuated by a big play if the game was still close in the fourth quarter.

The Browns got most of a season of "good" Shaun Rogers, making the Pro Bowl as the rarest and most integral piece of a 3-4 defense: the nose tackle.  Now that they're building around him, Mangini has realized--too late--the importance of handling Big Baby with kid gloves.  He's seeing the problems that come with making Rogers the foundation of your defense.  And he'll find out that Rogers will find the chinks in his armor, and undermine his ability to coach.  Good luck, Mangenius, you'll need it.

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old mother hubbard: the tight ends

Onward and outward from the football, , to the tight ends we go . . .

John Owens:  Some of you may remember this blast from the Millen past: a 6'-3", 255# TE out of Notre Dame, a fifth-round pick who contributed on and off for a few seasons.  After that, he bounced around Chicago, Miami, Cleveland, and New Orleans, until getting re-signed by the Lions late last year.  Owens is definitely a blocking-first tight end in a reciever's body, a guy who played both TE and DE in both high school and college.  Owens is a hard worker, but is neither gifted athletically, nor blessed with great hands, nor a "third tackle" blocking down the line.  Bottom line: just a guy.

Michael Gaines:  Gaines, a bit of a beast at 6'-4", 277, was originally drafted by Carolina in the seventh round.  Hailing from Central Florida University (Also Duante Culpepper's alma mater, if memory serves), Gaines was drafted by Carolina and saw occasional PT, culminating with 12 catches for 155 yards and two TDs in his third season.  Still, Carolina let him walk, and Buffalo picked him up right at the start of the season.  Despite waltzing in to a brand-new offense, Gaines got career highs in starts (14), receptions (25), and yards (215).  With at least one reception in every game he played (15), it seemed like Gaines might be starting to reach his potential.  So when the Bills released him and the Lions signed him, there was a bit of interest--could he be a diamond in the rough?  One season, six starts, 23 catches and 260 yards later, the answer is "probably not".  It's clear that he's a theoretically useful red zone target at that height, and has at least pretentions of being a two-way player.   He's more gifted than Owens, but I don't know if he wants it as badly.  Bottom line:  Gaines is a nice physical talent with some upside.  If the new offensive system actually uses the tight end position, he could develop into a good pass-catching #2 TE, or even a compelling red-zone option.

Casey Fitzsimmons:  Oh, man.  Somewhere, in an alternate Fan Wet Dream universe, Casey Fitsimmons was the Pro Bowl tight end on the Super Bowl-winning Lions.  He and co-MVP Mike McMahon recorded an authentic early-80s Detroit techno redux of the Super Bowl Shuffle, with features by fellow Pro-Bowlers Scotty Anderson, David Kircus, Jon Bradley, Danny "Blue" Adams, and Greg Blue.  Fitzsimmons hails from tiny Carroll College, an NAIA school in the middle of nowhere, Montana.  His high school team was so small it played 8-man football, and Fitsimmons played WR, TE, DE, and LB for them at various times.  Fitzsimmons was a sensation out of nowhere as a rookie in 2003.  At 6'-4", 258#, Casey displayed unusual athletic talent and a nose for the end zone.  Due to injuries, he was pressed into a starting role.  He started 11 of 16 games, and hauled in 23 catches for 160 yards and 2 TDs.  As we go into his seventh season in the NFL, he has yet to approach matching that kind of production.  Part of this is due to fragility--he's missed several games due to injury or illness in almost every season, including 4 in 2008.  Part of this is due to scheme; Martz's offenses really had no use for his talents.  And part of it, unfortunately, must be chalked up to him.  Bottom line: a pure recieving TE, and a fan favorite everyone would love to see reach his potential--but unless a miracle happens, he'll never be more than a great special teamer with a small but ardent set of fans.

SUMMARY:  The cupboard is shockingly, alarmingly bare here.  Three years of an offensive system where tight ends are almost completely vestigial have left the roster stripped of legitimate starting talent.  All three of these players are theoretically useful as depth, but Scott Linehan has always made great use of TEs--Lions fans should recall being terrorized by Jim Kleinsasser, and of course there was the sensational story of Randy McMichael in Miami (and then St. Louis!).  You can throw standout TE Brandon Pettigrew on the ten-man-long-list of "possibilites that would fill an need at 1.20", but I would look for a TE in the fourth or fifth round, possibly combined with a FA signing like soon-to-be-ex-Titan Bo Scaife.

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old mother hubbard: the tackles

>> 2.24.2009

Thanks for your patience folks!  I'm getting these cranked out so they'll be done before free agency . . .

Jeff Backus:  Backus is the man of the hour; the discussion of whether or not the 6'-5" 305 pound veteran could physically play guard--after 128 straight games at left tackle--dominates the Lions blogosphere dialogue (blogologue?).  Backus, as we all know, was an all-world beast at U of M, the capstone of a nigh-legendary college offensive line.  Coming into the draft, there was great debate as to whether Backus was better suited to play guard or tackle.  He had sufficient height and frame, grit and strength to play left tackle, but didn't have either elite size or elite athleticism.  When he was drafted, I hoped he'd be moved inside to guard, but Matt Millen made sure he was installed at LT.  Thus began eight long years of Lions fans not forgiving Jeff Backus for not being Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace.

Backus is a warrior, a smart player who (mostly) makes up for his lack of extraordinary gifts with relentless effort, good strength, and great technique.  Backus is a good drive blocker, and there were some running lanes opened up on the left side between him and Ed Mulitalo over the past couple of years.  However, his lack of lateral agility has caused him to consistently struggle against pure speed rushers.  As Matt Millen's first draft pick, Backus has been here much much much longer than the vast majority of the roster.  The 'standout OT' was signed to a six-year extension in 2006, so the Lions are committed to him financially for at least 2009 and quite possibly 2010 as well.  I think a lot of the tide turned on Backus in 2007, when he injured his rib cartilage in Week 3 against Philadelphia, then tried to play through it.  Ask anyone who's had this happen to them, or known someone who has: rib cartilage injuries are extremely painful.  Backus' limitations with the injury were apparent; he immediately let through a crucial sack and was removed from the game.  He didn't practice all week afterwards, but then started the following game to keep his streak intact.  Streak or no, he was pretty much awful that game, and for the rest of the season.  I have to believe that if the Lions had had a legitimate option to start ahead of him, Backus would have been benched right then, as the Lions were in the thick of the playoff race.  That's when he turned the corner from "okay but overpaid and I'd love an Ogden or Pace instead" to "completely blows" in most fans' minds.  It's difficult to really get a grade on him, because throughout his career, the Lions have so often been in down by two or three TDs, in desperate passing situations.  Opposing teams, throughout Backus' career, have been able to pin their ears back and really attack Backus' biggest weakness, the speed rush.  I do believe he's a servicable left tackle, better than most give him credit for, and one of the vanishingly few veteran leaders on this team.  Bottom line: Backus is a net asset to the Lions with his grit, effort, and leadership.  His play is mediocre, but good enough for 2009.  If the Lions drafted a franchise LT for the future with the 1.1, and plugged that player in at guard, or moved Backus to guard, I wouldn't mind that at all.

Gosder Cherilus:
  Gosder the Gozerian, as I call him, was part of the Great Tackle Run of 2008, an unexpected passle of offensive tackles selected in the middle of the first round of the 2008 draft.  Standing 6'-7" tall, and relatively light for that height at 318 pounds, Gosder possesses great size, strength, and an absolutely vicious mean streak that has gotten him in trouble a time or two.  Assigned to work with Lions legend Lomas Brown, Gosder came in pretty raw, and pretty stiff.  Still, in a competition with veteran RT George Foster, Cherilus got some near-immediate PT, getting in against the Packers home opener when Foster was benched.  He got his first start the week after, at San Fransisco, and acquitted himself fairly well--however, Cherilus had trouble mastering the snap count, and therefore racked up many false starts.  He also looked fairly stiff in pass protection, and tended to use his size and strength to maul rather than 'block' people--infuriatingly, these were the twin sins of Foster, the incumbent veteran.  Marinelli would bench one, then the other, then the other, trying to get one to step up and play well.  Ultimately, the light started to come on for Gosder towards the end of the season.  Even if he didn't completely eliminate the mental mistakes (in Week 16, he was flagged for lining up too deeply on what would have been a game-tying 43-yard bomb to Megatron), his hips started to drop, his lateral moves started to look good, and we saw a glimpse of a young right tackle with Pro Bowl tools instead of a big mean dude in football gear.  Many were hoping that Gosder would blossom into the elite franchise LT that Backus is not and never will be--after all, he played LT in college, didn't he?  But the truth of the matter is that Cherilus will be an oustanding right tackle for years to come . . . let him be what he is instead of what he is not.  Bottom line: a prototypical RT body, posessed by a nasty mean streak.  If he can get his head in the game and get his footwork down, he will be among the league's best right tackles.

George Foster: a 6'-5", 338 pound walking false start.  I would be surprised to see him here next year.

SUMMARY:  The tackle position has two solid starters but no depth whatsoever.  Speculation is rampant that the Lions will use the first overall pick to select a left tackle; if that happens either Backus or the pick will probably slide over to guard.  If the first pick isn't a tackle, look to see at least one drafted in the middle rounds, as there is no backup except Foster, and he may be gone.

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quick hits

>> 2.22.2009

Hey folks, I'm busy at work behind the scenes on the rest of the position group breakdowns.  A couple quick combine impressions:

* As almost everyone is saying, the shenanigans involving Alabama OT Andre Smith are like a forest of huge red flags: out of shape, didn't work out, left the combine without telling anybody, had an awful round of interviews . . . no thanks.

* OT Jason Smith from Baylor looked phenomenal.  Folks like Dave Birkett have been raving about him for a couple of days, but watching him in the position drills, he clearly stood out.  Very very strong in the upper body, very smooth and polished.  My new #1 OT.

* OT Eugene Monroe of Virginia did himself a lot of favors yesterday with his performance, and the Lions have already met with him.  He also looked excellent in drills; I'd have to rate him #2.

* Michael Oher didn't do anything to drop his stock necessarily, but he looked thick on bottom and lean on top; didn't look all that athletic next to some of the other guys, and admitted he hasn't even read "Blind Side", a book that was written primarily about him.

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old mother hubbard: the guards

>> 2.19.2009

The combine is upon us.  All the prospects are in Indianapolis right now, getting injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and--in April, with luck--selected.  For maniacs such as myself who want to see a bunch of as-of-last-month college kids run around pylons in shorts and pretend it means anything, the coverage of linemen starts at 2:00 pm EST Saturday and rolls on from there.

Stephen Peterman:  brought in with little fanfare but lots of curiosity, Stephen Peterman was a former third-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys.  Drafted out of LSU by Bill Parcells, Peterman blew out his knee in the last preseason game of his rookie season; he was IR'd and didn't see the field that year, or most of the following year.  The 6'-4", 323 pounder made it back in time to make some special teams appearances in the last few games of 2005, but the Cowboys cut him in training camp the following year.  It's rumored that the injury and his long recovery put him permanently in Parcells' doghouse . . . unable to catch on with another team before the season started, Peterman languished until the Lions' OL situation got (even more) desperate.  In mid-October, Peterman signed with the Lions, and was placed on the practice squad to learn the offense.  In December, he began to contribute, and was soon inserted as the starter.   He capped the year by playing extremely well in a massive upset of his former team, the Cowboys.  Peterman spent 2007 in a duel for playing time with Damien Woody, and eventually won it.  He entered the 2008 season as the starter for the first time in his career, and promptly broke his hand in Week 3.  After the bye and two weeks off, Peterman came back in Week 7 and really helped solidify the line.  I've commented before that for this window--from Peterman's return in Week 7 to the loss of Raiola in Week 11--the Lions' offensive line looked to finally be 'jelling', to becoming something more than the sum of its mediocre parts.  However, even though pass protection really became an issue after Raiola went out, with a line of Backus/Cook/McCollum/Peterman/Cherilus the run game finally had some size and grit up front.  From week 10 on, Kevin Smith's rushing numbers look really, really good.  Excepting for a moment the Tennesee and Minnesota games (because nobody ran on those guys), Smith carred 135 times for 585 yards, which works out to a 4.33 ypc average.  If that was the baseline for next season, this team would be in worlds better shape.  

Peterman is a grinder, a smart and tough guy with decent size; at 323 he's slightly lean for his height and frame.  Depending on what you read, he either lacks athleticism or technique, and from what I've seen it's more like his lack of technique inhibits his athleticism.  I think he doesn't quite know how to apply his agility to get lower, to use his leverage.  It seems like he has two settings, "pull" and "maul", and he doesn't know that if he was as quick and smart while power blocking as he is in space, he wouldn't have to try and maul everybody.  With the hiring of his old OL coach at LSU, George Yarno, as the Lions' new OL coach, Peterman will have every opportunity toacheive his remarkable potential over the five year, $15M extension the Lions just signed him to.  Bottom line: Peterman has the size, grit, and smarts to be a great run blocker.  He just needs to stay healthy and improve his footwork and technique.

Manny Ramirez: at 6'-3", 335#, Manny Ramirez cuts an imposing figure.  A huge, big-bodied guy with tremendous upper-body strength, Ramirez was pigeonholed by all the pre-draft analysis stuff as a raw drive blocker with no pass protection technique or footwoork.  However, Ramirez played at Texas Tech, where they pass sixty times a game, so it seemed like that couldn't possibly be true.  He called the protections at TTU for both his junior and senior seasons, and was known for his intelligence and leadership on the field.  When the Lions got him with their second fourth-round pick in the '07 draft, it seemed like a steal.  A big mean road-grader with many years' experience in a pass-first, pass-second, pass-third offense, plus a thorough knowledge of protections and reading defenses?  Awesome. 

He barely got on the field in 2007, and played only when Stephen Peterman got hurt in 2008.  What the deal with this guy is, I do not know, but he has all the indicators of success, and cannot get on the field on a team absolutely desperate for young, big, talented linemen.  I would love for him to step right in and start for the departed Ed Mulitalo, but it doesn't look like that will happen, possibly ever.  Bottom line: practically limitless potential languishing on the bench while street free agents are signed to start ahead of him.  No idea what the problem is.

Damion Cook:  A street free agent in his eighth year out of Bethune-Cookman; originally signed as a UFA by the Ravens in 2001.   When he got the call for the Lions, Cook had most recently thrown his 6'-5", 330# frame around in the CFL.  He'd last seen an NFL action in 2004--yet when Mulitalo went down, he ended up as the starter.  Cook finished the season atop the depth chart at left guard.  Bottom line: this dude has no business starting in the NFL.  He played commendably, considering, but if he didn't have a relationship with Colletto, he would never have gotten on the roster to begin with.

Junius Coston: A 6'-3", 315#, 2005 fifth-round draft pick of the Packers, the Lions are Coston's third team in as many seasons.  SUMMARY: fungible dude who doesn't even have a bio on the official site.

OVERVIEW:  The guard position is yet another of urgent need.  Peterman is currently a decent NFL starter with the potential to be really, truly good; he will almost assuredly enter the season as our right guard of the forseeable future.  Ramirez has the body and resume of an All-Pro, but can't get off the bench.  Nobody else is anyone we want seeing significant time.  The Lions must acquire a starter at left guard--the current thinking is that the Lions will either draft an LT-of-the-future and shift Backus over to guard, or draft an LT-of-the-future and start that player at guard.  However, don't rule out a mid-level free agent, even if the LT-of-the-future comes to town; the Lions are thin enough inside they could use a third guy who could start.  My current dream scenario is "one of the four LTs" at 1.1, and then Cal's Alex Mack at 2.1, letting Backus and OT handle the right side, Mack back up all three interior positions, and then Peterman and Cherilus hold down the right side.

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derek anderson to the lions?

Killer Kowalski put up a speculative piece today on the Lions making a play for Browns QB Derek Anderson.  He made several great points in regards to cap and contracts: Culpepper's renegotiated deal makes him a lot easier to carry through training camp, but cut him before the season.  DA's deal means the Browns are under the gun to get rid of him, if he's not going to start.  As the draft approaches, the Lions have some great ammo to make this thing work.

Looking at DA's size (6'-6", 230#) his arm, and his great success in 2007, he seems to be perfectly tailored to what the Lions hope to do.  Replace Braylon Edwards with Calvin Johnson, Jamal Lewis with Kevin Smith, and Kellen Winslow with . . . well, maybe 'perfect' is too strong of a word.  While I thought that DA and the Browns were, to an extent, doing it with smoke and mirrors, I would take a 26-year-old who did it with smoke and mirrors two years ago over a broken shell of a 31-year-old who did it with smoke and mirrors five years ago.

In an interesting twist, our new Tight Ends coach, Tim Lappano was the offensive coordinator at Oregon State when Anderson was the QB there.  Here's a great piece from the week before DA's first game starting for the Beavers, with some good quotes from Lappano about what he thought of the then-sophomore, as well as this one from Dennis Erickson:

"He's got unbelievable talent," OSU coach Dennis Erickson said. "I've been around a lot of them, and physically he has a chance to be as good as I've ever coached."

Nice.  Like the Karmelowicz hire, the pieces on this possible trade fit together really, really well.  If it happens, I think Mayhew will have done an unbelievable job of shoring up the QB position without leaning on someone we already know can't play (Culpepper) or has gone on a public anti-organization tirade (Kitna), burning the #1 overall pick, or otherwise handcuffing the organization's next five years to the wrist of someone we don't know can win in Detroit.

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Karmelowiczed onions . . . er, Jareds

>> 2.17.2009

EDIT: folks, I'm sorry, but blogger keeps mysteriously eating the links.  They are:

killer article: http://www.mlive.com/lions/index.ssf/2009/02/jared_allen_raves_about_lions.html

Star-Tribune article: http://blogs.startribune.com/vikingsblog/?p=2474

Killer Kowalski at mlive.com pointed out a little tidbit in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It's a quick little interview/article with Jared Allen, talking about his relationship with the Lions' new defensive line coach, Bob Karmelowicz. Go ahead and check it out; I'll be right here.

Now, I should not have to remind anyone reading this that Jared Allen had an unbelievable 2008: he racked up 14.5 sacks and 54 tackles, and was the lightning rod atop a mountainous Vikings defense. It used to be that you could simply pass over the Williams Wall, but suddenly that wasn't the case. Allen singlehandedly shrunk the field for opposing offenses with his speed, strength, and tenacity.

Yet, 2008 was a tipping point for Jared Allen. His early career had been an almost unbroken string of success; as an up-and-comer for Kansas City, Allen flashed incredible potential and production.  In 2004, his rookie year, he garnered nine sacks in just 10 starts.  His second season, that sack count literally and figuratively "went up to 11" (apologies to Spinal Tap).  This trend culminated with a Pro Bowl season in 2007, where he had 15.5 sacks in just 14 games.  Allen had established himself as one of the premier pass rushers in the game, just as his rookie contract was expiring.  Still, a cloud hung over him: three DUI arrests (one in 2002 and two in 2006) had placed him in deep trouble.  Remember the "14 games" part of that "Pro Bowl season"?  Allen was under the NFL's equivalent of double-secret probation: the third stage of the Substance Abuse Program.  He'd appealed his standard four-game suspension down to two games in 2007.  However, one more incident within two years of his last arrest (September 2006), and he could be suspended for a whole season, and be one more false move away from lifetime banishment.  However, if he managed keep his nose clean until that two-year period was up, his slate would be wiped clean.  The Chiefs decided they couldn't roll the dice on that much guaranteed money for that much risk.  They franchise-tagged Allen, and traded him to the Vikes for a first, two thirds, and a swap of sixth-round picks.  Moreover, Allen got an enormous contract extension at the consummation of the trade: six years and seventy-two million dollars.  The Vikings were paying him an awful lot of money to ensure that people would continue to call them "Super Bowl favorites", no matter how many years in a row they play .500 ball.

Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) all the pressure, Allen had a tough time getting going. After five games, Allen had just two sacks--and for a guy used to more than a sack per game, that wasn't cutting it.  He called up his former position coach, Bob Karmelowicz.  It's tough to tell exactly what happened here--Karmelowicz was hired by then-new Texans head coach, Gary Kubiak, to enthusiastic response.  After one season as the defensive line coach, Karmelowicz was reassigned to "Special Assistant to the Head Coach".  Whether this was a promotion, or a demotion, I can't divine.  Either way, Allen paid out-of-pocket to fly Karmelowicz up to Minnesota every Tuesday for one-on-one coaching. I have amusing mental pictures of Allen's mom trucking him around in a minivan, his head bent up against the ceiling. "Goodbye dear; have fun at pass rushing today! Make sure you work hard and listen to your teacher!" It's eyebrow-raising, to be sure: a professional football player paying to be coached, when the team is both paying him millions to play, and paying other coaches millions to coach him. Yet, Karmelowicz made an instant improvement in Allen's game: Allen recorded 12.5 sacks in the last eleven games, terrorizing other teams on his way to his second straight Pro Bowl and the NFC North crown.  The whole story is really unusual; nfl.com's Adam Schefter wrote about it in a disturbingly-similar-to-the-Star-Ledger-piece blog entry back in December.

Karmelowicz, at first, seemed like one of the several "buddy hires" on the Lions' roster: Gunther's old DL coach from the "glory days" in Kansas City, who happened to not have anything better to do.  Interestingly, however, Karmelowicz has also coached at LSU and Arizona State, which links him to multiple members of the offensive staff as well.  It seems as though he'll be a really natural fit in terms of the culture Schwartz & Co. are trying to build.  Moreover, the Jared Allen story speaks volumes about what Karmelowicz can do as a teacher, motivator, and  defensive line coach.  I cannot wait to see what this guy does with White and Avril, let alone any linemen we choose to draft.

This is one of the things that's hard to see from our perspective, a reporter and an Internet away from anyone who really knows anything about these guys.  We see two or three sentences about an assistant coach guy and go, "Oh, right, he worked with so-and-so back in the day.  *sigh*  I wanted someone good."  The reality is, we know effectively nothing about these guys except what we see on the field on Sundays.  And what this guy puts on the field on Sundays is usually great.

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NSS Interblog Mock Draft: Round Two!

The Next Season Sports Interblog mock draft, the subject of much M&I (that's Murder and Intrigue, for those reading who are neither me nor my mother), continues on!  Round 2 is here:


For the second round, since the Lions don't have two second-round picks, my cohort Steve from Detroit Lions Weblog and I collaborated on the initial pick of the second round.  Making this selection was tough; as I whined about with the 1.20, the board had fallen about as poorly as possible for the Lions.  All of the linemen and linebackers that might fall to 1.20 were gone by then, and some of the remainders I thought might be there at 2.1 were also gone.  After a few back-and-forths, we agreed there were two real possibilities: Wake Forest CB Alphonso Smith, and USC LB Clay Matthews.

Smith possesses all the tools of a prime time NFL cover corner: blazing speed, great short-area burst, confidence, and a nose for the ball.  Everyone's favorite free draft site, Scott Wright's Draft Countdown, has this to say about Alphonso Smith:

"Was a four-year starter in the ACC...First team All-American as a senior...Was named All-ACC as a junior and a senior...Holds the ACC record for career interceptions...A true playmaker and ballhawk who will make quarterbacks pay for their mistakes...There isn't much not to like about this guy other than his lack of prototypical height...Would get selected much earlier if he were 2 or 3 inches taller."

To make a long story short, Smith looks like Dre' Bly all over again, minus (offically speaking) one inch of height.  5'-9" is really small, especially since that's an "official" height.  We'll see what happens when he weighs in at the combine, but for now the height gives me pause.  Scott and I were wearing our Martin Mayhew/Shack Harris caps (golly, who was who?), trying to draft as we think the Lions will.  It's been stated multiple times by Mayhew and Schwartz that the Lions are looking to add size, especially on defense, and with Michael Johnson added somewhere in the front seven, we partially addressed that need.  However, since it's now looking like the Lions will primarily run a 4-3 set, Johnson would fit into more of a SDE/WDE rotational mold . . . 6'-7" 260 is truly enormous for an LB in a 4-3, and I don't think he has the coverage skills to play Mike or Sam--and the Will spot belongs to Ernie Sims.  Therefore, there's still a need for size in the middle of the defense.

Clay Matthews goes about 6'-3", 240--and though he played outside at USC, that was only because of the presence of gamebreaking he-beast Rey Maualuga in the middle.  Matthews could play inside or outside, from everything I've read.  He is fleet of  foot, an extremely hard worker, very strong, a great tackler, has a knack for getting after the passer, and excels on special teams.  He's not supremely athletic side-to-side, but his grit, strength, instincts, and motor more than make up for it.  It's tough to say whether playing next to two supremely talented athletes in Maualuga and Brian Cushing--both of whom are first-round locks--made him look much better than he is, or robbed him of some much-deserved attention.  The final piece of the Clay Matthews puzzle is that he's the son of Clay Matthews (17-year NFL vet), nephew of Bruce Matthews (NFL Hall of Famer and 19-year vet), and grandson of Clay Matthews Sr., (also an NFL veteran).  This guy's bloodlines are absolutely impeccable, and if he's half the player his father or uncle were, he'll be a valuable addition to the roster.  As Steve said, if this guy is the pick, the "bromance" between him and Lions fans will bloom . . .

In the end, we chose Smith.  One of the justifications for my controversial selection of Josh Freeman in the first round, was that I thought Smith might still be here for us at this pick--and he is.  Smith is also a dangerous return man, so even if he doesn't start, or begins his career as a nickel back, he'll be have a chance to make an immediate impact in another desperate need area.  Moreover, Smith possesses the attitude--if not the frame--to be excellent in run support.  Despite his size, he's very strong and physical . . . I think he needs to go to the vet, because his pythons are sick (apologies to Colin Cowherd).  Of course, only time will tell with any of these guys, but I think we got one of the, if not THE, best player available at this spot, and one of the better values so far in this draft--and filled two desperate needs (CB & KR) while doing so!  I think Steve and I got the second round off to a great start, and eagerly anticipate the rest of the round as it rolls on.  Keep your eyes on this space, as there is already talk of starting over from 1.1 once all the combine info is in and folks have had time to digest it . . .

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old mother hubbard: the centers

>> 2.15.2009

With the combine nearly upon us, it's time to resume the position-by-position roster breakdown.  As with the defense, we'll start with the players closest to the ball and move out.

Is there any more controversial Lion than center Dominic Raiola?  The Hawaiian-born, 6'-1", 295 pounder was Matt Millen's second-ever draft pick, and a prototypical West Coast Offense center.  Coming from a long line of outstanding Nebraska Cornhusker offensive linemen, Raiola was anointed the interior anchor, signal caller, and (to use an apropos basketball term) pivotman of the Lions offensive line for the next decade.  His squat frame (I believe the '1"' at the end of that 6' is decorative) helps open up sight lines and passing lanes for QBs hitting short slants.  His ability to pull, agility in space, and second-level blocking makes him perfect for blocking on the screens and outlet passes that help the WCO stay "on schedule" and keep defenses honest.  So what's the problem?

Well for starters, the problem is that the Lions haven't run the WCO for years.  The other problem is that Raiola is a little undersized for a modern NFL offensive lineman, and has always lacked either the bulk, the strength, or both, to push the pile.  As a rookie, this was painfully obvious; he was absolutely abused in the interior of the line, and was a big reason why Lions power backs, like James Stewart, could never establish a rhythm.  I remember well watching him in his rookie year at the old SVSU open training camp, and cringing.  Lions DTs like Luther Eliss and Kelvin Pritchett absolutely had their way with him; it wasn't a great omen.  In the passing game, Raiola had good technique right out of the block, but his lack of bulk (and lack of experience facing elite DTs in the Big 12) meant that he needed help from a guard to block even average defensive tackles.  Raiola quickly earned the scorn of most fans as the first high-profile Matt Millen 'bust'.  Raiola put his head down and worked, and within a couple of years, his maturing body and NFL strength training began to caulk over some of the gaps in his game.  His toughness, consistency, and heady reads brought what very little consistency there was to an offensive line that has been a revolving door in more ways than one.  When Joey Harrington was on the ropes, it was often reported that Raiola was the only teammate that consistently had his back in the locker room.  Though the offense last year was not geared to his strength--emphasizing the power run game and deep passing game--to me, there was an immediate dropoff in overall OL play when he went out with an injury to his right wrist.  As testament to his toughness and committment, Raiola spent several weeks putting in extra time, trying to teach himself to snap with his left hand.  Keep in mind, the Lions were already approaching 0-16 at that point; Raiola and the Lions had practically nothing left to play for.

I am not going to suggest that Dominic Raiola is an elite center.  However, most Lions fans filed this guy in the "sucks" bin many years ago--and either have not watched for, or have not been able to see, the vast improvement he has made since.  He is among the top half of starting centers in this league--and having already had a cast of thousands be awful on either side of him, with no end in sight, the Lions desperately need him to stay right where he is for 2009.

Andy McCollum is a fifteen-year veteran, the meatiest nine of which were spent with the St. Louis Rams.  McCollum played on some outstanding offensive lines in the late nineties and early aughts with the Greatest Show on Turf, and continued to be a steady force in the middle for years after Vermeil, Warner, Faulk, and company pulled up stakes and left town.  McCollum was one of the many offensive linemen who were crumpled by the St. Louis O-Line Famine of 2007, and was released after the season was over.  The Lions picked up the 6'-4", 300-pound veteran for depth, and for the first time in well over a hundred games, the Lions had need of a backup center.  McCollum stepped and started against Jacksonville, and did an okay job.  Many Lions fans rejoiced at how the running game seemed to pick up--and it's true, it looked like RB Kevin Smith had more daylight up the middle than before.  However, in pass protection, the offensive line was quickly overmatched.  The meager amounts of the cohesiveness and toughness the offensive line had recently begun to show, especially in the Chicago game, evaporated.  Without Raiola calling the protections, it was clear that the offensive line was back to being five ill-fitting parts again, rather than a cohesive machine.  McCollum was definitely decent, and his size and leverage in the middle was definitely a more natural fit for the Coletto/Kippy Brown/Dumpster Fire 'offensive scheme' the Lions ran in 2008.  However, even if he were an overall upgrade over Raiola (he isn't), his best days are long since behind him.  I would not be surprised if McCollum hung 'em up after this season, or even before.

SUMMARY:  The Lions have a solid veteran center in Raiola, and only a veteran reduced by age to mediocrity behind him.  If the Lions were looking to go interior line with the 1.20, 2.1, or 3.1, and an outstanding center prospect with grit and size (like Cal's 6'-4" 316# Alex Mack) were sitting there, I could see them taking him and putting him at RG, with the understanding that he could someday usurp Raiola on the line.  If McCollum retires or is released, I could see the Lions signing a veteran OL with an outstanding special teams resume to take his spot as the 'warm body who can snap'.

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be my valentine?

>> 2.13.2009

From Dave Birkett's blog, a quote Martin Mayhew on the hiring of Shack Harris as the oft-mentioned "personnel man":

"Mayhew was asked if he'd be OK if Harris voiced strong opposition to his decisions as they related to, say, the No. 1 overall pick. 'There were any number of yes men available, and we didn't pick any of those guys,' he said."

I gotta say folks, I know I have to be all "WTF why didn't they CLEAN HOUSE!!!?!?!?!?!?" in public . . . but I have a secret man-crush on Martin Mayhew.  Sometimes, even the blind old rich dude finds the acorn.

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the fellowship is complete

>> 2.12.2009

Killer of mlive.com has the info on the Lions' complete coaching staff.

I think Steve Mariucci mentioned that between head coaches, coordinators, and assistants, the Lions hired and fired nearly eighty coaches from the time Millen took over until now.  I haven't done the research to be absolutely sure this is true, but I believe that every player that's been here more than two years since Millen took over has had to deal with a different position coach, coordinator, head coach, or all three.  That's really depressing--and it's no wonder that players like Roy, Kevin Jones, and Shaun Rogers learned to tune out the coaches!  The players with big salaries figured out that they'll be there a lot longer than anyone telling them what to do . . . so why do it?

As Schwartz made each of his coordinator hires, I said to myself (and to you all): this guy might not be the 'hot' hire, but he's had plenty of success as a coordinator, he's been a head coach, he believes in Schwartz and Schwartz's vision, and he's more than qualified to be a coordinator again.  It made me expect to see that level of expertise, that extensive resume, that level of "This is a wise and rock-solid hire" reaction to each position coach.  Like the QB, RB, WR, TE, and OL coaches all should each have had been an NFL coordinator, or college HC.  Well, with this crew, it ain't the case.

Looking over the offensive staff, it has Linehan's Pac-10/WAC/Mountain West fingerprints all over it.  The QB coach will be Jeff Horton, who was a 'special assistant' to Linehan in St. Louis, and the head coach at Nevada and UNLV before that.  The OL coach--a position we were all looking at hard for some improvement--will be George Yarno.  He's coached offensive lines in college for 17 years, including stints at Arizona State, LSU, and Washington State (all hotbeds of Gillman/Martz/Erickson coaching tree talent).  His one year of NFL experience?  Last year, as an assistant OL coach in . . .

. . . wait for it . . .

Tampa Bay.  Not exactly the bulletproof, unassailable, gosh-this-guy-will-spin-this-straw-into-gold hire we were hoping for there.

However, it's worth noting that not every position coach isn't meant to be a coordinator, just like every coordinator is not cut out to be a head coach.  The position coach is actually the main interface between the player and the coaching staff--that's the guy with the player in the classroom, in film sessions, in position drills.  On a day-to-day basis, the position coach is doing the teaching and coaching and guiding and player development, while the coordinators are working on the scheming, gameplanning, and execution.  As the Grandmaster himself said, as a head coach, you aren't coaching the players--you're coaching the coaches.  Therefore, for a position coach, having encyclopedic X-and-Os knowledge is nice, but not a requirement--and as we saw with Martz and Stanton, having a guy who thinks he's a bigger deal than he is might not be in the best interests of the player.  What's most important in a position coach is his ability to work with players, and his ability to work with the coordinator and head coach.

I look to this line from Jim Colletto's farewell interview:

"I had a talk with Jim and he said he wanted someone who was going to be here (for more than one year)," Colletto said today. Colletto, who has one year left on his deal, planned to retire following the 2009 season.

This speaks volumes about the staff the Grandmaster is trying to put together.  He himself hired a strong right hand in Guntherball, and a strong left hand in Linehan.  Then, he allowed them to pick position coaches and assistants that would make THEM comfortable and let THEM perform at their best, rather than a bunch of recently-fired coordinators who will want to help stir the soup.  You know what they say about too many chefs in the kitchen . . .

But above all, it looks like Schwartz wants to build a staff that will stay together.  Linehan said it in his introductory presser: he's sick of moving.  He wants to settle down.  He turned down offers from franchises in better on-field positions, to work with a man whose vision he believed in and who he could be happy working for.  Gunther is at a point in his career where he'd like to cement his legacy as a DC under a man who he deeply respects.  None of these position coaches are "hot names" who are going to be moving on as quickly as they arrived, changing nothing while they're here (Scott Loeffler, I'm looking at you).  It's hard to get excited about most of these hires--but with luck, they'll prove to be a group that can provide the professionalism and continuity this franchise has desperately lacked for so long.

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the Turk comes for six

>> 2.10.2009

As has been extensively reported (here's Tom Kowalski's mlive.com piece on it), the Lions cut five former starters yesterday, as well as an OT nobody was ever aware was on the roster, Jon Dunn.  The other five? Leigh Bodden, Dan Campbell, Mike Furrey, Edwin Mulitalo, and Dwight Smith all got the axe, freeing up quite a bit of cap room (around $11 million), and depleting the Lions' roster of anyone who would ever start for another team at cornerback, tight end, and offensive guard.

All of these guys were set to earn more than they were worth, and none--with the possible exception of Bodden--will be hard to replace.  Bodden's travails have been well documented. Yet Campbell, Furrey, Mulitalo, and Smith are all very high character, very high effort guys.  When Campbell was signed, I had Cowboys fans come out of the woodwork to congratulate me and all Lions fans on getting such a great player and great person.  Unfortunately, injury kept him from ever showing us how good he really could be.  Furrey was a fan favorite rags-to-riches story--from being cut off the Rams as backup safety, to leading the NFC in receptions in 2006.  Furrey wasn't the same without Martz calling the shots--and without lining up against third corners and linebackers instead of #2 CBs.  Big Ed Mulitalo was big, and a tough guy with a suitable name ("Ed").  We didn't learn much about him during his time here, but he was by far our most dependable, highest-performing guard, and the only interior lineman who could push the pile when asked.  Smith wasn't nearly the ballhawk he's been everywhere else in his career, but he was a great guiding hand for our young safeties.

What I'm saying here is that the Lions are not just sweeping yesterday's trash to the door, but good players who work hard and deserve better than to be rubber stamped "BAD EGG" and dumped down the furnace.  Moreover, this team that was desperate for decent starting talent just lost quite a bit of it.  The situation at corner is officially dire--we're talking Red Alert, Defcon 1, all hands on deck bad, here, folks.  Even if you argue that TE and OG are positions where you can get by with scrubs, we've been doing that for years and years and years now--David Sloan and Jeff Hartings were our last two talented starters at those positions.  #2 WR is now a concern as well--though given the glorious talent of Megatron and the desperate needs everywhere else on the field, I don't expect it to get major attention.

To bottom line it, these cuts (and the others that are coming) were probably necessary to set up the cap for future years, and to fully close the chapter on what little Rod--and Millen--had built.  Still, as my next round of position breakdowns is about to show, the talent level of this roster is bordering on nonexistent.  Mayhew, Lewand, Schwartz, & Company better have a real clear roadmap going forward--and enormous stones.

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baby, it's cold outside

>> 2.09.2009

Yesterday, I took the minivan out for a desperately-needed car wash.  The family truckster was smothered in a chalky, dingy coat of salt and dirt; three straight rounds of "I'll wash the car when it stops snowing and warms up", only to have niether happen, had taken their toll.  Well, I happened to be out and about, it was a bright, beautiful day, and the little ones always enjoy the big floppy cloths and the "rainbow soap" and the roaring  flamethrower turbine dryers.  With the mercury rising dangerously close to what we Michiganderanians consider T-shirt weather--fifty degrees--it seemed like the perfect thing to do on a lazy Sunday.  Then, I got to the parking lot.

  Fifty other people'd had the exact same idea.  The line for the car wash extended all the way out into the street, and people were just parking in one of the driving lanes with their turn signal on.  Everyone had followed the same thought process I had: beautiful day, been putting it off for months, doing nothing else . . . wash the car.  It's one of the things about the long, cold winter--it synchronizes our thoughts and actions.  It adjusts our expectations.  It makes us thrill for the merest hint of warmth.  It messes with our heads.

It's been funny as this year's NFL Draft Circus puts up the big tent.  The mockers are mocking, the analysis is flowing, and guys are rising and falling up the chart as the only real piece of info anyone has to go on--the Senior Bowl--has created almost unstoppable momentum.  Some of you might remember, I'd identified  B.J. Raji as a guy we should look at with our 1.20 . . . he had a good practice in the Senior Bowl--he was completely invisible in the game--and he's now a lock for the top ten, according to most mocks.  This, despite the fact that he wasn't graded as a top ten guy mostly because of his inconsistency.

It's funny, because with all the Lions fan mocks, comments, analysis, reaction, blogpost, blog comments, forum threads and replies, texts, tweets, and smoke signals, they all say the same things: "we need linemen", "we need corners", and my favorite, "we need five immediate impact players in this draft".  It's the same thing we do every year: we look at the team, and we think about the team we wish it was.  It's part of where we've grown up: we want tough.  We want a vicious, stingy defense.  We want to be stout against the run and relentlessly attack the pass.  We want to control the ball, control the clock, control the game.  Hit people in the mouth so hard they can't hit back.  We all follow the same, reasonable thought process.  We look at the 2008 Lions, and subtract, at least, Mike Furrey, Leigh Bodden, Edwin Mulitalo, and Dan Campbell.  Then we examine the differences between the 2008 Lions and the mythical, "2000 Ravens + QB + Megatron" we wish they were.

Then, we look at the pool of available candidates and start trying to check them off.  Crushing OT: Andre Davis, check.  Dominant MLB: James Laurenitis, check.  Smothering cover corner: D. J. Moore in the second . . . check?  Pair of RB-eating defensive tackles:  Um, maybe we trade up for B.J. Raji?  And, uh, I guess we sign Haynesworth?  You're dreaming.  Double-digit-sack DE?  Brian Orakpo.  Come on, you've already spent your two first-round picks three times.  Well, uhm, uh, is Julius Peppers going to be available?  Not to the Lions he isn't!

Hey, nice to see the National Football Post has been reading and agreeing.  Hey, fellas, what's up?

Seriously though, some of the reaction I've gotten on my Freeman pick in the NSS Interblog Mock Draft has gotten me thinking.  It's funny, because I often take a rap as an "optimist", an "apologist", a "sucker", or even an "idiot" because I never stop cheering for the Lions.  I never call the players bums, I never call the coaches or morons or idiots.  I never loudly proclaim that "I'm done with them", threaten to kill them, or root for the Reaper to come swiftly for Big Willie Style.  But then a lot of the so-called 'realists', the loudest complainers and most aggreived moaners, are right in line with me at the car wash!  We're all in a big herd saying, we need OT, we need DT, we need CB, we need LB, we gotta get five impact players, we need more talent, we gotta get bigger, we need, we gotta, we need, we gotta . . . whoa, whoa, WHOA!  I'm going to say something I never say during the season:

The Lions suck.

They suck, folks!  Our team, the Lions?  They suck out loud.  They blow goats.  You cannot add enough 23-year-old fatsoes to this roster to turn them into the 2000 Ravens.  You have to step back.  You have to take a breath.  Throwing rookies at pressing needs is not going to help--rookies, for the most part, can't fill those needs.  If you need Ray Lewis now, you can draft eleven MLBs and not get the one Patrick Willis that would help.  If you need Jonathan Odgen now, you can draft eleven offensive tackles and not get the one Jake Long that would help.  SO FEW rookies make an immediate impact!  First-rounders play like top starters as an exception, not as a rule.

Well, what about free agency?  Not much better.  This isn't the 90s anymore--good teams aren't shedding veteran starters in their prime for the rest of the league to gobble up.  The great dynasties of this era are all ten or twenty million under the cap.  Nowadays, almost by definition, if free agents were worth the amount of money they're asking for, they'd still be with their original team.

So . . . what, then?  You build for the future, because it's all you can do.  You have to take the players that you want to build up.  That you want to build your team around.  Coming into the 2011 training camp, these players should be the core of the team.  But coming into the 2009 camp, these players should--and will--be learning, and growing.  One or two of them might catch fire and contribute right away--but they will be hope for the future, not the foundation of a contending team.  We can't grade the players drafted this April by what happens on the field this September.

What we WILL get to grade, though, is the way Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand handle this draft.  We can see how they feed the roster, what positions need attention, if they appear to be working with the coaches, if they make trades, if they stand pat, how they react to the board unfolding in front of them.  THAT is what we should really be anxious to see in April--not eleven new Lions, but the performance of the men charged with drafting, teaching, coaching, and leading them.

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mock lion soup: please don't send it back!

>> 2.06.2009

So . . . I made my pick over at the Next Season Sports interblog mock draft.

Whoo boy, did it not go as I planned.  As I explained over there, I believe strongly that the Lions are going to look to get bigger up front and through the middle of their defense.  DT and ILB are the two biggest needs--you cannot stop the run with Cory Redding and Landon Cohen in front of Paris Lenon.  It's just not going to happen.  Unfortunately the DT everyone can't get enough of, B.J. Raji, went at 1.10.  The next best DT is Peria Jerry, and not only is he a undersized three-technique DT, he went at 1.19!  There are no other DT's I'd consider.  ALL of the ILBs were gone: Curry, Maualuga, Cushing if you shift him over, and Laurenitis--who I actually think will be the 1.20 if he's there, BTW.  Since Steve from www.detroitlionsblog.com drafted 6'-7", 260# LB/DE Michael Johnson with the first pick, I decided he could flex pretty much anywhere in the front seven except NT in a 3-4 or OLB in a 4-3, and moved on to the next biggest need: Cornerback.  Unfortunately, the top two corners were both gone, including Vontae Davis to the Bears at 18.  I felt that one of the next two corners, Alphonso Smith and D.J. Moore, would be there at the 2.1, so . . . damn.  What next?  I really feel like this is the doomsday scenario for the Lions--there's a bunch of offensive skill position guys here, but nothing the Lions really need--and considering how much they need, that's saying something!  I went with the next most pressing need . . . quarterback of the future:

(photo by Getty Images)

That's right, I took KSU quarterback Josh Freeman, all 6'-6" and 250 pounds of him.  I went into my reasoning quite a bit over at NSS, but basically it's like this: Freeman is the next Culpepper.  He's huge, he's mobile, he's athletic, he's got a gun, he's got a fumbling problem.

Why, if I am such a rabid anti-Cpep guy, would I pick Freeman?  Well, I kind of see "Culpepper" as his downside.  Culpepper never really had to learn to "play QB", since streetball was so effective in both college and the pros.  Culpepper merely shredded I-AA compeition with raw talent, but Freeman was battle-tested against superior Big 12 teams.  Often, Freeman was the only thing going for his Wildcats, leading them in rushing and throwing all over everywhere.  Further, he ran a pro-style offense at KSU--which also featured a significant no-huddle package, proving he can diagnose defenses and run an offense on the field.  Freeman possesses a lot of the indicators for quick success in the NFL (in the mold of Flacco, Ryan, and Roethlisberger).  Yet with no expectations for the Lions in 2009, he can sit and be groomed for a year or two.  Freeman, as a late-first-rounder--as opposed to Stafford as a #1 overall--could easily be billed as a project.  Linehan can teach him to play like he taught Culpepper, maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.  Freeman shouldn't get the kind of "start him now" pressure that Stafford at 1.1 would recieve--and I'd hope the Lions front office and staff would be on the same page about being patient with him.

You know, when it comes to football blogs, a YouTube clip is worth ten thousand words:

Word.

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. . . and so it goes

>> 2.05.2009

Detroit News writer John Niyo, amongst others, is reporting that CB Leigh Bodden won't be retained.  Mlive.com's Tom Kowalski has an excellent piece on it here.

Group A: Cory Redding, Kalimba Edwards, Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola. 

Group B: Roy Williams, Shaun Rogers, Jeff Hartings . . . Leigh Bodden?

Group C: Kevin Jones, Johnnie Morton, Luther Eliss . . . Leigh Bodden?

Much has been made of the Lions' consistently poor drafting.  After all, it seems evident: so few of the many high Lions draft picks are still with the team!  Yet, as bad as the Lions' drafting has occasionally been, I actually don't think the Lions' pattern of first-day failure has been extraordinary.  Go look back through NFL Draft history: every first round, from every year, has some stars, some decent players, quite a few disappointments, and several laugh-out-loud busts.  What slot in the first round you're talking about doesn't matter--I believe the figure most often quoted is that 50% of all first-round picks are busts.  And when you consider that first-rounders are both theoretically the most talented of all draftees, and definitely command the greatest financial commitment from the franchise that drafted them, that means that the other rounds probably have similar--if not higher--percentages of failure.  Think about it, folks: every team invites 80 players to training camp; 2,560 guys enter July with a shot at an NFL job.  By mid-August, that number has gradually shrunk to the 53-man active roster--that's 1,696 real jobs to go around.  The NFL draft is seven rounds long, times 32 teams, plus compensatory picks; let's call it 250 rookies drafted every year.  Plus, most teams bring in 5-15 undrafted free agents.  That means that every year, ~350 kids come looking for one of 1,696 jobs--and many keep coming year after year, bouncing around the CFL, Arena League (now defunct), NFLE (now defunct), XFL (now defunct), UFL (supposedly starting up), and AAFL (supposedly starting up) . . . the vast majority of new hopefuls will spend years trying to break onto an NFL roster.

The question becomes, when will they let the incumbent go?

The Lions' biggest problem, to me, hasn't been the multiple high-profile misses at the top of the first; it's been the inability to identify and retain the talent it does develop.  Look at Group A up above: Cory Redding, Kalimba Edwards, Jeff Backus, and Dominic Raiola.  All were high Lions draft picks.  All of their performances showed both downside and great upside through the duration of their rookie contracts--and for all, the Lions chose to retain them by paying them what they'd be worth at the peak of their upside.  Redding, Edwards, Backus, and Raiola all signed massive extensions, as if they were amongst the best in the league at their position.  And, the truth must be told, all of them had at least flashed that level of on-the-field play at that point.  Even the biggest disappointment of those four, "Kalimbust", had an overlooked-by-most sensational rookie year, highlighted by a game against Atlanta where none other than Mike Vick was unable to escape his relentless pursuit.  These are the players people think about when they assert that the Lions consistently "overpay to keep mediocre talent around".

Let's look at Group B: Roy Williams, Shaun Rogers, and Jeff Hartings.  Each of these three were obvious "hits" from the day they took the field as Lions.  Each reached the highest level of performance right away.  Each had some struggles with either injury, discipline, or inconsistency, and each was either traded or allowed to walk away.  Each has gone on to (or "will go on to"--I'm sorry, but Roy will be sweet in Dallas) great success elsewhere.  These are the players people think about when they assert that the Lions consistently "won't pay to keep good players".

Finally, Group C: Kevin Jones, Johnnie Morton, Luther Eliss.  All Lions first-round picks.  All acheived great success with the Lions, albeit for varying lengths of time.  At the time each was released (or allowed to walk away), Lions fans were stunned.  These were valuable contributors who had productive years in front of them!  Moroever, each individually had many rabid fans amongst the Lions faithful.  To send them packing--and get nothing in return--seemed ridiculous.  And yet . . . Eliss was nothing more than cheap depth in New England.  Johnnie Morton picked up his monstrous paychecks in KC with a mask and a gun.  KJ was a mostly-invisible backup to workhorse rookie Matt Forte in Chicago this year, and will be lucky to ever start again in the NFL.  These are the players nobody ever thinks about, because the Lions got it right.

Notice there's not a group D: players that the Lions took a chance on keeping, and got it right.  Obviously, Morton and Eliss each recieved multiple contracts with the Lions through their veteran careers, but each were clearly productive veterans who had a well-defined role on the team.  It didn't take much talent to decide to extend a perennial Pro Bowl DT in his prime.  Also, the Lions get no cookies for cutting obvious busts like Joey Harrington, Mike Williams, and Charles Rogers.  Instead, look at the way New England tap-dances around their roster:  Wes Welker gets extended, Deion Branch gets shipped off.  Mike Vrabel is kept, Roosevelt Colvin is released.  Production is rewarded, inconsistency punished.  Youth is not seen as a virtue of itself, yet veterans who are too old to produce are treated mercilessly (see: Brown, Troy).  Easy-peasy, right?

Well, no.  Belicheck and Pioli ran circles around the rest of the league in this area for years--and with the billions being thrown around to chase those two, they'd have been caught if it were easy.  Yet, just last year, the Patriots were a dude catching a ball with his helmet away from going 19-0.  

This is the first of the real "crossroads" decisions the Lions' new brass have had to make: Bodden is a young veteran in his prime, and came to the Lions with all the indicators of success--physical tools, confidence, some real time starting, and some real production in that time.  However, it's indisputable that Marinelli's desire for "53 gym rats" didn't mesh with the acquisition of Bodden, that Bodden's skills weren't ideal for the Tampa 2, and that Marinelli's stick-and-bigger-stick approach to motivation did nothing but DE-motivate him.  So a talented, young-but-experienced player at position of desperate need is sent packing, more because of the Lions' mishandling of him than because of his failure to produce.  Make no mistake, though, Bodden DID fail to produce.  If he is half as skilled as he thinks he is, he should have been able to perform better than he did in 2008.  Putting 8.5 million dollars in his pocket, and committing to him for three more years--when he was already publicly dissillusioned with the franchise--certainly seems like a gamble.

So Lewand and Mayhew are put to the test.  Will Bodden be the next Jeff Hartings, a perennial standout for an elite franchise?  Or will he be the next Johnnie Morton--a bitter disappointment to a team that thinks they're getting a standout starter just entering his prime?  At this point, only time will tell.

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mock lion soup

>> 2.03.2009

Whew!  With the first half of my roster breakdown completed, it's time for some quick site news: I will be one of two blogs representing the Lions in the Next Season Sports (a Seahawks blog with an awesome name) Interblog Mock Draft!


I was invited to participate by Steve at www.detroitlionsblog.com, who writes himself some mean Lions analysis, and the head honcho at NSS, Aaron.  I'll be handling the 20th pick--and let me tell you, the board is not shaping up the way I'd hoped!  I really fear this will play out like last year, where all the Lions' targets go just a little be earlier, and there will be no cookies left for our Lions when the clock strikes 1.20.

Steve bravely handled the 1.1 duties--and fell victim to the ever-fickle swirling winds of Internet draft info!  His selection of freak DE/OLB Michael Johnson of Georgia Tech--currently viewed as a late-first/early-second type by the footbal 'blog glitterati--with the first overall pick raised some eyebrows.  However, Steve was spot-on with his reasoning and thought process.  First, niether he nor I think that Matt Stafford grades out as a #1 Overall Pick kind of quarterback, nor does he possess the consistency, toughness, and leadership that I think Mayhew and Schwartz are looking for (over and above arm strength, 40 time, etc.).  Further, Steve correctly notes that all signs out of Allen Park indicate that they are just fine with Jeff Backus and Gosder the Gozarian at OT, and therefore probably have no desire to shell out cap-busting money for a third OT.  That leaves the Lions with an interesting mix of players to choose from, none standing out, few addressing needs.  I think the Lions' most pressing need is that of a physically dominant DT--however, there is no Big Daddy Wilkinson or Kevin Williams sitting there waiting to be taken.  IMO, the Lions' next most pressing need is that of a legitimate linebacker with size and speed, a big athletic tackler who could fit in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 (as the Lions' base alignment is still up in the air).  Johnson would be a DE/OLB, but I'd look hard at Wake Forest's Aaron Curry, 6'-3", 247, an incredibly fast, athletic, and aggressive linebacker, who could play inside or outside in a 4-3 or 3-4.  He'd be an instant upgrade over Paris Lenon in a 4-3, would be amazing pair with Ernie Sims, and would be a firey leader that could set the tone for the defense--I'm not saying he'll be just as good . . . but he could be the Patrick Willis we DID draft.

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old mother hubbard: the safeties

>> 2.02.2009

Finally, we come the last installment of my roster evaluation--defensively speaking, anyway. The Safeties are supposed to be the last line of defense, yet far too often the Lions safeties were the only line of defense.


Daniel Bullocks: Bullocks was a second-round pick in the 2006 draft; the 6'-0", 212-pounder had starred at Nebraska, manning the safety position his twin brother Josh. Bullocks came out hot his rookie year--in his first start (Week 2 @ GB), he racked up 12 tackles (8 solo) and two passes defensed. He finished the year with 74 tackles, a sack, and 3 passes defensed--this in 15 games and 7 starts! Bullocks looked like he was set to be a fixture at safety for the Lions for a long, long time. However, in the third preseason game of 2007, he blew out his knee, and was lost for the year. His intense rehab efforts and successful comeback for the 2008 preseason earned him the Lions' Ed Block Courage Award. Coming into the 2008 regular season, we didn't know how much Bullocks would or could contribute--well, the answer was "a lot". Despite the presence of free agent signee Dwight Smith, as well as (for a while) 2007 rookie standout Gerald Alexander, Bullocks had a great statistical year. Finishing third on the team with 121 tackles (74 solo), Bullocks established himself as an energetic force. He's althetic enough to play either spot--but he loves to hit, so he's a slightly more natural strong safety. However, due to the emergence of Kalvin Pearson, he finished the season starting at the free safety spot. Bullocks showed no signs of being slowed by the knee injury, even while playing more in coverage, and with his 2008 performance he solidified his position as one of the few defensive building blocks the Lions have. Bottom line: Bullocks is a talenteed young safety who plays with athleticism, but likes to get his nose in the pile. Should be an asset for years to come.


Gerald Alexander: The third of three 2007 Lions second-round picks, Gerald Alexander was one of the vaunted Boise State Broncos who took out Oklahoma in the '06-'07 Fiesta Bowl. A giant-killer, yes, but no dwarf at 6'-0", 204, Alexander was pressed into starting duty when Daniel Bullocks' knee imploded. Alexander quickly found confidence: in Week 2 against Minnesota, he garnered 5 solo tackles, two passes defensed, and a interception, which he returned for 34 yards. He started the rest of the way after that, ending up with 81 tackles (59 solo), 2 sacks, and two INTs. Alexander's precocious field awareness and obvious athletcism made it look like the Lions had their free safety of the future in hand. With the ancipated return of Daniel Bullocks, it seemed like the Lions were set for 2008 and beyond at the safety position. However, in the 2008 preseason, something was obviously wrong. Alexander looked tentative, hesitant. Instead of making plays, he was a step (or two, or three) late. He whiffed on tackles. He looked nothing like the star-in-the-making we'd seen in 2007. He started the first preseason game, but was benched in favor of the fully-healed Daniel Bullocks. He made some appearances in rotation, but had just seven tackles in five games. He suffered a neck injury in the 4th quarter against Minnesota which would require surgery. He was placed on IR, ending his season. Bottom Line: Alexander is either a talented young free safety who, along with Bullocks, will be be a feared element of the Lions defense--or not. Only time will tell.


Kalvin Pearson: Brought in as a special teams standout, and Tampa 2 "system" depth (as Bullocks was still recovering), Pearson almost immediately shamed himself, and the Lions organization, by getting arrested for choking a woman pregnant with his child. Many fans, including myself, wanted this guy immediately released from the team. He was released--on bond--and attended minicamps as if nothing had ever happened. The felony charges were eventually dropped (possible interpretation: the woman was paid enough money to shut up), and Pearson was instead indicted with misdemeanor charges of 'obstructing or resisting a police office without violence', the hearing for which he was not required to even attend.


. . . I'm sure that's all on the up-and-up.


Anyway, Pearson, as both a probable scumbag and another of Marinelli's mass import of Tampa castoffs, had a long way to go to endear himself to Lions fans. At first, behind Bullocks, Alexander, and Dwight Smith, Pearson rarely saw the field when there weren't kickers or punters out there with him. However, as the painfully thin Lions secondary got thinner with the injury to Keith Smith, Pearson started to play nickel corner. His stout build (5'-10", 200 lbs.), great tackling ability, and good short-zone coverage skills made him a better T2 nickel than any of the other corners. When Smith got hurt, Pearson became the starting strong safety, and Bullocks slid over to free. In Week 9, his second as the starter, Pearson had a monster game, posting 10 solo tackles. Much to my chagrin, Pearson continued to be a rare and valuable playmaker on the Lions'd D, finishing with 83 tackles, 1 sack, 4 forced fumbles and 4 passes defensed. This in just 10 starts as a strong safety. Pearson is limited athletically, but as a strong safety he's an undeniable asset to the roster. Bottom line: Pearson is a great special-teamer and was suprisingly effective as a strong safety. He's not a long-term top-flite starter, but on this roster he's no worse than a valuable rotational guy. Still, a nasty injury to, or the unexpected release of, this jerk wouldn't be the worst news I ever heard.

Dwight Smith: Smith was another Tampa 2 system guy, one who'd been an important cog in those early-aughts Bucs defenses. Most recently, however, Smith played for the franchise where the "Tampa" 2 actually originated--Minnesota. In 14 games (13 starts) in Mike Tomlin's Tampa 2 system, Smith did his ballhawking thing, intercepting four passes (returning one 93 yards for a TD), and defending 9 others. It was hoped that Smith could rotate in with Bullocks and Alexander, play some nickel corner, and generate some turnovers--as well as provide needed veteran depth and leadership. However, partly due to Alexander's failures at free safety, Smith ended up starting Week 1 at strong safety. He was fairly productive at first, but by the time he injured his foot against Houston, he wasn't making much impact. Kalvin Pearson took over, and by the time Smith came back he was relegated to the bench. Bottom line: Smith was expected to be a playmaker in rotation, but instead he was an unremarkable starter. Pearson made him irrelevant, and he will likely be released in the offseason.

Stuart Schweigert: One of the more interesting street free agents I've ever seen. Schweiger hails from Saginaw, and played college ball at Purdue. The Raiders drafted him in the third round of the 2004 draft, and he immediately saw time. By 2005, he was starting, and his 6'-2", 205 lb. frame got 87 tackles (70 solo), 2 INTs, and 7 passes defensed that year. He started all of 2006, racking up a career-high 107 tackles, and then in 2007 . . . he started off at his usual pace, and then got hurt. Schweigert played only part time the rest of the way. He went throught he offseason with the Raiders, only to see the writing on the wall when the Raiders drafted Michael Huff. Scheweigert sounds off about it here. I don't understand how a 27-year-old, former third-round-pick safety who's played at a high level gets cut, then gets no interest until the 0-10 Lions are desperate for a warm body. Schweigert was only got on the field for the Lions in Week 12, and then played only sparingly. At this point, we have no idea what he can do. Bottom line: Schweigert is a young veteran, a local boy, and a total enigma. If Smith and/or Pearson are cut loose, keep an eye on Schweigert as a rotational guy.

Lamarcus Hicks (bottom line): second-year guy who spent 2008 on and off the practice squad. Doesn't look to have much impact for 2009.

SUMMARY: Safety is another enigma position for the Lions. The ideal situation is that Gerald Alexander recovers his 2007 form, and he mans the free safety spot while Bullocks holds down the strong side. That would give the Lions two young, athletic, experienced safeties for years to come. However, if Alexander cannot return to that level of play, he'll be backing up Bullocks at the free spot instead. I have to assume that Dwight Smith and his $2.3M cap number will be hitting the road. That leaves Pearson and Schweigert to battle it out for the strongside spot--and while they each have some upside, I'd much rather see a healthy Schweigert play up to his potential. While there are some question marks here, this is the area of the defense that needs the least help. If the Lions drafted safety, I would want to see a Sunday pick (rounds 4-6) with some serious speed and kick return credentials.

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